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Blog | | Early Edge California

In Their Own Words: Hearing from our Early Learning Community during COVID-19

California’s Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) Stand by Young Children and Families during Challenging Times

Since Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on March 4, 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were directed to close across the state, and with them, early education classrooms that serve our youngest children.  

Despite closures for the duration of the 2019-20 school year, the state has committed to preserve funding for local educational agencies (LEAs) to complete the fiscal year. In return, LEAs are expected to transition to high-quality distance learning to serve their students, provide meals to families in need, and arrange for the supervision of students during school hours. State-subsidized childcare programs also have continued to receive their state funding during this time and are encouraged to remain open or reopen to serve essential worker families. Policymakers have also paid great attention to ensuring that emergency childcare is available to serve the families of essential workers in California. The state has lifted restrictions that may prevent essential workers from accessing childcare, and rules have been changed to help ensure the health and safety of families and educators when emergency care is provided.  

Through all these efforts during the pandemic, Early Edge California is listening to the LEAs we work with in our LEA Professional Learning Community (LEA PLC), which are critical providers of childcare in their regions. Like the K-12 schools operated by these LEAs, their early education classrooms also have shut down, but their work to serve their families continues. We spoke with members of our LEA PLC representing the Oakland Unified School District and Pajaro Valley Unified School District to learn more about the current situation and how they are supporting families. 

Outreach to Families and Distance Learning

Our LEA provider professional learning community partners are currently engaging families in their districts to provide support and distance learning for their youngest learners. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, Director of Early Childhood Education/Child Development Kathy Lathrop at Pajaro Valley Unified School District has been working to ensure families in her various programs (from Migrant Head Start and state preschool to a teen parent program) are feeling supported during the school closures. 

A key effort for her Early Education team has been making contact with as many families as possible. “The first round of calls was to make sure they were ok and accessing the resources they need. Then it was about letting them know about our website resources and that the packets are being distributed as well. We’re really making sure families are getting what they’re needing. We also have two mental health clinicians this year through new state funding. They have been great in finding families resources on stress, COVID, coping, and mindfulness, all the things that help people get through this time,” said Ms. Lathrop. Her team also created a Google survey to obtain updated families’ emails and phone numbers to ensure they could make regular contact with them, and have been able to increase their database from 68 family email addresses to 240. 

They also put together activity packets early on. “Within the second week of closing, we were distributing learning packets physically to the families. We’ve continued with that – we did two in April and one’s going out today,” said Ms. Lathrop; packets include items like crayons and a spiral notebook. “In the middle of May they’ll get paints and a little windmill. We’re trying to make it fun.” She and her team have brought materials online as well, enriching the district’s website to feature digital versions of the activity packets, high-quality interactive apps, and social-emotional information for families. The site is now being utilized by people across the county. 

Over the last few weeks, Ms. Lathrop and her team have developed new packets in accordance with the CDE’s Management Bulletin on COVID-19 Guidance that provide families with a structured routine for the day, and daily activities across all learning domains. These packets will also be distributed to children who are currently unable to attend the portion of Pajaro Valley Unified’s contracted Family Childcare homes (FCCs), as three-quarters of this network provide California state-funded preschool (CSPP).  

“One of the strengths of our department is that we’re very family-centered. People are just barely coping. I’m really proud of the activities we’ve put together because none of them require that you have anything other than a low income home would have, “ said Ms. Lathrop. “So if it’s a counting activity, you don’t have to have buttons and beads. You’re counting the windows in your house, or the silverware in the drawer or something like that. All of it is very easy, short, and home-centered.”

Communication with families during COVID-19 has been essential for Christie Herrera as well. As the Executive Director of Early Learning in the Early Childhood Education Department at Oakland Unified School District, Ms. Herrera and her team have conducted rigorous outreach from the beginning of the closures to appropriately meet the needs of Oakland families.

Her teachers connect with families at least twice a week–whether it’s a phone call, a YouTube video, a Zoom call, or letters in the mail– to check in on families and provide resources for learning. 

“We’re trying to meet families where they’re at. So for instance, one of our teachers is finding that the families are just really overwhelmed with their older kids’ work during the day, so she does a PM circle time, a goodnight story with the kids and the families really love it,” said Ms. Herrera. Her teachers are doing some sort of interaction with families twice a week based on their needs. “The majority of teachers are doing Zoom circle time, pushing out YouTube videos, and activities. I have one teacher who’s doing a lot of mindfulness activities, so more of a health and wellness push. Some teachers are doing a parent circle that might be later in the evening where parents get on Zoom to talk and support each other. I know the parents have appreciated that as well. And there are also some families where that is just not their need right now. They just want a call or a text.”

Communication with families at the start of the school closures also helped inform the distance learning materials that worked for Oakland Unified’s Early Education students. Ms. Herrera’s team conducted a technology access and wellness survey for families, and found out that about 500 families did not have access to a computer. 

“We were realizing that there was a huge backlog of tablets. So we put our brains together with other partners to create packets of materials to do at home. We’re trying to make these packets more play-based. It wasn’t going to be something where you had to go out and purchase anything. Our team put a lot of time and effort into making sure they were accessible. We were really intentional about this. We looked at other packets being pushed out and they required materials, but if we couldn’t even get them chromebooks, how were we going to get them materials as well? So that is a really key component [of our distance learning strategy].”

Ms. Herrera’s team worked with the New Teacher Center to create packets which are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Chinese. They cover 8 weeks with daily activities in math and early literacy and provide a light daily schedule for families to follow. They also connect families to online resources through the inclusion of QR Codes. 

“I’m so proud to work at Oakland right now, and to just see what educators have put towards our families. It’s been quite an amazing thing. Just hearing from our staff and what they’re doing and the support they’re giving each other, it just shows the true heart of Oakland. It’s a really unique place. It’s really clear that people care deeply about the community.”

The Current Need for Childcare

LEAs are ready to care for the children of essential workers; however, demand for these services has remained sparse. Our LEA partners are working closely with their early education counterparts in their region to regularly assess the need for childcare.

“We’re very unusual as a school district, as we have an FCC network, so we obtain C-Center and CSPP funds from the state, and we enroll and subsidize children in FCCs that we contract with,” said Ms. Lathrop. “Before COVID-19 we were serving 256 children in these homes, and of that number, 180 are still attending regularly [during the pandemic] as children of essential workers. So we’re still very much providing childcare.”

However, of the 104 families that Ms. Lathrop’s team contacted who are enrolled in the district’s full-day center-based CSPPs, only 12 families have taken up services. “We had 32 [families] who wanted services, but then when they found out their center wasn’t opening, they were less excited to put their kids someplace new that they don’t know. The perception is there’s a lot of need, but we’re not seeing a big glut for need. We think it’s fear factor. There are a couple of popup childcare [centers] that have opened up in our county for school-aged kids and again low attendance so far as I last heard. The private nonprofits were echoing this last week–they’re open but they don’t really have kids coming. Proportionally, people are not bringing their children into other settings right now. And we understand that. When everybody is afraid, you’re going to go to some place that you trust and know. You know your provider, you know she does a good job cleaning, you know she knows your kid if your kid is stressed. That’s what I think families are making their decision on,” said Ms. Lathrop.  

Ms. Herrera is seeing a similar trend for childcare. Oakland Unified works closely with the resource and referral programs (R&Rs), such as the organization BANANAS, which is taking the lead on placing families with essential workers who need services. Ms. Herrera and her team work closely with the R&Rs to provide a temporary placement for any family requesting services, but as of the time of the interview in early May, she has only had three families request care. 

“In Alameda County, there are about 2,000 slots for essential workers and as of the last meeting I attended yesterday, there were about 306 families accessing those slots right now. What we’re finding is that unfortunately families have one or more people who have lost their jobs, so if there is an essential worker within the home, there is someone who can watch their child. A lot of families at this point are not feeling comfortable sending their children to center-based care because there are a lot of unknowns. They’re just afraid and they’d rather have a preferred family member or friend watch their child if they have to go to work. Eventually that’s going to change because more people are going to need to go back to work, so I think that’s where LEAs and community-based organizations (CBOs) are going to need to work closely with the CDE to determine what the best steps are to keep everybody safe and to look at our partners that are open and how they’re doing it safely.”

While emergency care services may not be requested at the moment, LEAs are prepared for the need to shift as stay-at-home orders and the COVID-19 crisis evolve in the weeks and months to come.

Planning for the Future

In terms of future planning for their districts, both directors acknowledged that, given the current situation, there are many unknowns and a lot of complexities to consider.  

Ms. Lathrop notes the difficulty in future planning right now, “It’s really hard to plan because we don’t know the parameters, We don’t know the group size. We’re starting to do enrollment for our half-day state preschools next year. I told our coordinator to enroll at 10 for the 12 classrooms, but we need 24 to make it viable, so then we’ll see. We don’t really have enough information to put a plan in place. And we understand why we don’t have enough information. The profile for this virus and pandemic is changing weekly.” Yet, her focus on communications during the pandemic has already given her insight into how to plan for the coming fall and years ahead. “Everybody’s on a steep learning curve. We empower people when we help them get technology and we know that most of the families have smartphones, that’s how they find places and do things. We just need to teach them about some of the other resources that can support them. Next year, families won’t enroll without an email, I won’t contract with a provider without an email. And the families that don’t have email addresses, we’ll call them and set them up with one and find out what tech they have.”

For Ms. Herrera, planning for the months ahead is challenging, but is bolstered by strong partnership. “I’m on calls everyday about how we’re going to reopen, what that’s going to look like, what do we do for our staff that are vulnerable or at risk, how many kids are we going to serve, how will we change our priority list, do we change our priority list, what’s the new ratio, what does that mean for funding — so many questions. Instead of just bombarding the state, we’ve been trying to be really methodical about what the most important questions are to get answered now. And then, once we get those answered, asking, how do we go back and keep working to figure out how to reopen? I think it’s been a really amazing thing, especially in Alameda County, how much care and consideration is going into these conversations about reopening and how supportive everyone has been of each other because we’re all in the same boat. It’s creating such a deep level of collaboration.”

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